Saturday 27 February 2021

Sir Charles Villiers Stanford: Love’s White Flame - Songs

It is astonishing that there is not a complete recording of Charles Villiers Stanford’s songs. A brave attempt was made by Hyperion Records with their remarkable two volumes (CDA 67123 and 67124) issued in 2000, featuring Stephen Varcoe and Clifford Benson. Prior to this survey, Hyperion had also issued an LP entitled Stanford: Songs from the Elfin Pedlar in 1982 (A66058). Tenor James Griffett was accompanied once again by Clifford Benson in a selection of Stanford’s Irish folk arrangements, and several original songs including The Fairy Lough, The Bold Unbiddable Child and The Monkey’s Carol. I have not heard this album, and I understand that it has not been reissued on CD or download.  There have been several Stanford songs included in compilations and recitals by singers as talented as Kathleen Ferrier and John Shirley-Quirk. Interestingly, a new recording of Stanford Songs is due to be released in mid-January 2020 by Somm (SOMMCD 0627). It features Roderick Williams (baritone), James Way (tenor) and Andrew West (piano). Except for The Triumph of Love op.82 there is little duplication with the present CD.

Stanford’s song catalogue runs to several pages: in the liner notes, Howell considers its extent. Much depends on what is counted. It is reckoned that there are some 200 art songs and approximately 300 folksongs which were also intended for the recital room. Many of the latter were Irish songs, but also included several French melodies and a German tune.

I do not intend to comment on each number on thus disc, but a few random thoughts may be of interest. For me, the major work here is the Five Sonnets from The Triumph of Love op.82 (1903). These are setting of poems by the educationalist, writer and poet Edmond Holmes (1850-1936). The booklet explains the complex background to these poems, which refer to the author’s rather individual theological syncretism. On the other hand, this collection may have been written for Stanford’s 25th wedding anniversary: it remains a debatable conceit. I find these symphonically conceived songs moving and powerful but do not need an esoteric underpinning to enjoy. That said, despite the text being a little over blown, the bottom line is “Amor vincit omnia” – Love conquers everything.

Die Wallfahrt nach Kevlaar op.72 (1898) is a song cycle with a story. Unfortunately, this narrative is, to modern minds, somewhat unpalatable. Involving extravagant Roman Catholic superstition about Our Lady’s role in the lives and deaths of individuals, it is fair to wonder why the Protestant Stanford chose to set it. Yet, once again, this is a story of love reaching beyond death, and as such it is a beautifully realised setting of Heine’s verse. Perhaps this is a lesson to us all: mythological narrative can be used to powerfully express deeper truths, irrespective of source.

I did wonder why only two of the Four Songs op.125 (1911), had been included here. The reason is simple: the subject matter of first two is suitable for a female singer and the final two for a male voice. They were originally written for Dame Clara Butt and her husband, the baritone Kennerley Rumford. The liner notes state that songs are “too disparate to be called a cycle”. The soprano has a Shelley setting, coupled to an Irish idyll by Winifred Letts (1882-1972). These are “melodious songs of the superior ballad type.” (Porte, 1921).  The other two (unrecorded here) are Phoebe by Thomas Lodge, and Shelley’s The Song of the Spirit of the House.  

Other songs on this album include Stanford’s only setting of a text by Rabbie Burns, Dainty Davie. This is sung with an Irish accent! The Corsican Dirge is exactly that. Elizabeth Barratt Browning’s May’s Love is operatic in effect but effective all the same. The earliest piece here is Keats’s La Belle Dame sans Merci composed in 1877. It is a significant, if somewhat melodramatic, song with lots of variation of the “bardic melody” and an orchestrally conceived piano part.

The liner notes by Christopher Howell are excellent, with much helpful information about the song cycles and the individual numbers. One disappointment was the lack of texts in the CD booklet. However, they are all available at the invaluable Lieder Text Site maintained by Emily Ezust. I do think that this is less than ideal, as it requires some organisation to follow the text when listening.

I enjoyed Elisabetta Paglia’s performance of all these songs. She has a rich and beguiling voice. Occasionally her pronunciation is a touch idiosyncratic (“doth” should be sung “duhth”) and now and again the words in this recoding are just a little bit indistinct, at least to my aging ears. She has a notable CV, with many operatic roles to her credit, including Dorabella in Cosi fan Tutte, Siébel in Gounod’s Faust and Tisbe in Rossini’s La Cenerentola. Paglia has sung the solo part in Vivaldi’s Stabat Mater and Gloria. Her repertoire is wide ranging, from the 18th century to the present.

The contribution of the accompanist is sometimes forgotten in recitals. Here Christopher Howell’s playing is of the highest standard throughout. His deep scholarly knowledge is essential to the realisation of this album. He has completed several other important projects, including Stanford’s complete piano music and violin and piano works. The two soloists worked together on the enjoyable My Heart is Like a Singing Bird : Song settings of poetry by Christina Rossetti issued by Sheva Records in 2013 (SH076, and reviewed here).

I guess that I hoped the Varcoe/Benson CDs would have turned into a complete survey. That was not to happen. So, I wonder if Christopher Howell’s venture is going to expand to cover all bases. Clearly, he will have to add to the list of performers to include a male voice. I understand that several tracks for a second volume have been laid down, and that there are potential plans for a third.  Looking at catalogue suggests that many volumes will be required if all the songs, both art and folk, are to receive a recording.

This is a remarkable CD with the potential to provide the first complete cycle of Charles Villiers Stanford’s songs. This oeuvre is a major element of British/Irish song writing. It deserves to succeed. I can honestly say that I have rarely heard a song by Stanford that I have not relished

Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924)
Elisabetta Paglia (mezzo-soprano; Christopher Howell (piano)
Rec. Studios of Griffa & Figli s.r.l., Milan, Italy, 27 October & 24 November 2018
Da Vinci Classics C00304 [65:50]

Track Listing: 
Five Sonnets from The Triumph of Love op.82 (1903)
1. O one deep sacred outlet of my soul
2. Like as the thrush in winter
3. When in the solemn stillness of the night
4. I think that we were children
5. O flames of passion
Die Wallfahrt nach Kevlaar op.72 (1898) 
1. Am Fenster stand die Mutter
2. Die Mutter-Gottes zu Kevlaar 
3. Der kranke Sohn und die Mutter  
Four Songs op.125 (1911) 
1. The Song of Asia 
2. John Kelly 
Dainty Davie (1905) 
A Corsican Dirge (1892)  
May’s Love (c.1884) 
A Japanese Lullaby (1918)  
The Linnet (1902) 
Der Kukkuk (German folk song arr. Stanford) (1908) 
La Belle Dame sans Merci (1877) 
The Calico Dress (1896) 

Wednesday 24 February 2021

Anthony Hedges: Kingston Sketches for orchestra (1969)

One topographical work which is rarely heard, is the Kingston Sketches. This was also inspired by Hedges’s adopted hometown. The Marco Polo CD (see below) liner notes explain that in 1969, Hedges was one of several composers who were approached at short notice to generate sketches for the opening theme to a new television series. Hedges ‘jotted down’ two short ideas one evening. They were not accepted by the producers. Clearly, he felt that they were too good to lose, so Hedges extended them, and they became the ‘Waltz’ and the ‘March’ from the Kingston Sketches. Each of the three movements of this Suite is named after a Hull street. The opening ‘Waltz’ was called ‘Whitefriargate’. It is a pensive and graceful piece.  The middle ‘Romance’, which was the final piece to be composed, was entitled ‘Silver Street’. These two thoroughfares feature old buildings that were not destroyed during the Hull Blitz.  The city suffered more than 1000 hours of air raid alerts. It was the goal of the first daylight bombing raid and the last piloted air raid on Britain during the Second World War. The last movement of the Kingston Sketches is the cheerful but somewhat tongue in cheek ‘March’ called after the ‘Ferensway’. It is many years since I was in Hull, but if I recall, this road is effectively a commercial street with few historical buildings. The entire work is a delightful piece of ‘light music’ that deserves the occasional revival.

According to the liner notes, the Kingston Sketches were premiered during April 1971 by the BBC Northern Ireland Light Orchestra conducted by Havelock Nelson. However, another possible date for this first broadcast may be the 28 December 1972 when it was heard on Radio 3 and was played by the Orchestra of the Light Music Society conducted by Vernon Handley. This short Suite gained considerable popularity. It was to receive many more broadcasts and concert performances.

Reviewing the Marco Polo CD for The Gramophone (April 1998) Andrew Lamb felt that ‘The various sets of geographical impressions do ultimately tend to be rather similar in style and lacking in sharply defined characteristics. However, the disc as a whole should prove a welcome addition to the collections of more adventurous light music enthusiasts looking for something slightly different. With the composer at the helm, all is elegantly written , played and recorded.’

Anthony Hedges, British Light Music, Four Breton Sketches, Cantilena, Overture: Heigham Sound, Four Miniature Dances, Scenes from the Humber and the Kingston Sketches. RTE Sinfonietta/Anthony Hedges, Marco Polo 8223886, 1997

The Kingston Sketches has been uploaded to YouTube: I. Whitefriargate Waltz, II. Silver Street Romance, III. Ferensway March (Accessed 1 January 2021). Lots of adverts, alas.

Sunday 21 February 2021

It's Not British, but...In the Age of Debussy: Music for flute and piano

This remarkable CD of French flute and piano music presents original works and some arrangements. I listened to the CD in order, except that I grouped the two pieces by Debussy together. 

Lili Boulanger (1893-1918) has composed an interesting work that looks forward to the musical style of ‘Les Six’ as well as taking a backward glance towards Debussy. D’un matin de Printemps was originally conceived for violin and piano and dates from the spring of 1917. Arrangements for violin, cello and piano as well as the present version followed immediately afterwards. In the last weeks of her life, she transcribed it for full orchestra. This was her final musical offering before her early death. D’un matin de Printemps is a fresh and vibrant work that evokes the springtime in a manner that both Debussy and Francis Poulenc would have approved of.

It is unfortunate that Paul Dukas is recalled only for his The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (1897), brought to a vivid life of its own by Walt Disney in Fantasia (1940). Compared to other composers, Dukas’s catalogue is not huge, but includes an excellent Symphony, the opera Ariane et Barbe-bleue, the ballet La Peri and a superb piano sonata. His musical style straddles romanticism and modernism, and sometimes touches on impressionism. La Plainte, au loin, du Faune (1920) was written for inclusion in the dedicatory Tombeau de Claude Debussy. This volume was commissioned in 1920 by Henry Prunières, director of the Revue Musicale. It featured contributions from the great and good of contemporary European music. These included Albert Roussel, Maurice Ravel, Eugene Goossens, Manuel de Falla and Igor Stravinsky. Dukas’s number incorporates several quotations and allusions to Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune. The original version of La Plainte was for piano solo, but the present arrangement allows the flute to explore the ‘many decorative phrases in the [piano’s] higher register’. It works exceptionally well.

A few weeks ago, I reviewed a chamber ensemble arrangement of Claude Debussy’s Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune (DACOCD 842). I noted there that several versions of this masterpiece had been created by various hands. These included the composer’s own arrangement for two pianos (1895), an arrangement for the ‘Pierrot Ensemble’ of flute, clarinet, violin and cello and the reworking by Carl-Oscar Østerlind and Kristoffer Hyldig for violin, cello, piano and clarinet.  The present version for flute and piano was made by the French composer and writer, Gustave Samazeuilh (1877-1967) in 1925. It is an enjoyable and effective transcription, but is it necessary? For me, the orchestral original is just sheer perfection.

My big discovery on this CD was Bilitis pour flute. This work has an involved history. In 1897, Debussy set three poems by Pierre Louÿs for female voice and piano. It was published as Les Chansons de Bilitis. During 1900-01 Debussy ‘expanded’ this into an instrumental piece with two flutes, two harps and celesta. It was designed to accompany a narrator reading 12 poems from Louÿs’s collection. Three of these were arrangements of the original songs. It is understood that this score was lost. In 1914, Debussy recalled elements of this music in his Six Épigraphes antiques written for piano duo. The present recording is a transcription for flute and piano of these Épigraphes. In 1939 an orchestral arrangement was devised by Ernest Ansermet.

The listener should bear in mind the pastiche nature of the songs, the titles and the music. Pierre Louÿs managed to fool classicists into believing that he had discovered poems by the Greek poet Bilitis, a friend of Sappho, in a lost tomb in Cyprus. The music has an artificially developed archaic feeling, created by ecclesiastical modes, whole-tone scales and arabesques. The entire score is timeless in its impact. I never tire of hearing this music in any version. This arrangement for flute and piano is particularly satisfying.

André Caplet (1878-1925) was a French composer and conductor. For better or worse he is now recalled only for his orchestrations of some of Debussy’s works including Children’s Corner, the ever popular ‘Clair de lune’ from the Suite bergamasque and The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian. Several of his many original pieces have appeared on record in recent years. The 2 Petites pièces for flute and piano were written in 1897 whilst Caplet was studying at the Paris Conservatoire.  The ‘Reverie’ and ‘Petite Valse’ look to Fauré for their inspiration and charm but also present some wayward harmonies and modulations on their own account.

I am not sure why Gabriel Fauré’s Sonate pour violon No. 1[in A major] op. 13 (1875-76) has been ‘arranged’ for flute. It does not appear to have been sanctioned by the composer. This large and impressive work is presented in four movements. This Sonata is usually credited as the composer’s earliest success and is characterised by a romantic mood, vibrancy and passion. Highlights here are the thoughtful ‘andante’ and the vivacious ‘scherzo.’ Although I am happy with this reworking for flute and piano, I think that I will stick with the original incarnation. That said, the wind instrument certainly cut the mustard with the ebullient ‘Scherzo’. Finally, it is not stated in the liner notes who made this arrangement.

Ransom Wilson (flute) and François Dumont (piano) give splendid performances of all this music. The sound quality is well balanced throughout. The programme notes by Roger Nichols are ideal. They give each work concise, but wholly relevant, details. There are the usual biographies of the two soloists. The cover painting, La Rue Saint-Lazare, temps lumineux (1893) by Camille Pissarro (1830-1903) sums up the ethos of this disc. 

I enjoyed this all the music on this innovative CD. The three ‘arrangements’ are interesting experiments, that will be of interest to aficionados of Fauré’s and Debussy’s music. I felt that Bilitis pour flûte was a major addition to the repertoire. On the other hand, I will stick with the originals of Gabriel Fauré’s Sonate pour violon No. 1 and Claude Debussy’s voluptuous Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune.

Track Listing:
Lili BOULANGER (1893-1918) D’un matin de printemps (1917/18)
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918) Bilitis pour flûte (1914)
Paul DUKAS (1865-1935) La Plainte, au loin, du Faune...(1920)
Claude DEBUSSY Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune L86a (1894) 8.52 Transcription for flute by Gustave SAMAZEUILH (1877-1967)
André CAPLET (1878-1925) 2 petites pièces (1897)
Gabriel FAURÉ (1845-1924) Sonate pour violon No. 1 op. 13 (1875)
Ransom Wilson (flute), François Dumont (piano)
Rec. Wyastone Leys, Monmouth, UK. 21-23 March 2019
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Thursday 18 February 2021

Celebrating Leonard Salzedo’s 100th Anniversary

It is difficult for listeners to immerse themselves in the music of Leonard Salzedo (1921-2000). There are only a handful of CDs dedicated to his work currently available. It is possible to find a wider selection of his music on YouTube, SoundCloud and some file sharing websites. It is unlikely that his work will be heard in the concert hall: the massive Newsbank database returns only 54 ‘hits’ from the past 40 years. And several of these are articles syndicated to multiple newspapers and record rather than concert reviews. Yet, many people will have heard Salzedo’s music without realising it. He composed widely for the cinema, most famously in The Revenge of Frankenstein (Hammer Films) (1958).

Brief Biography of Leonard Salzedo: 

  • Born in London on 24 September 1921.
  • Private lessons from William Lloyd Webber
  • Studied at the Royal College of Music between 1940-44, where his teachers included Isolde Menges for violin and Herbert Howells, for composition.
  • First and Second-String Quartets written in 1942/3.
  • Commissioned by Marie Rambert, Salzedo composed the score for her ballet The Fugitive (1944). It was the first of seventeen examples of the genre that Salzedo composed.
  • In 1945, he married Pat Clover, business manager and occasional dancer of the Les Ballets Nègres
  • Played as a violinist with the London Philharmonic Orchestra (1947-50) and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (1950-66).
  • First performance of the ballet The Witch Boy in Amsterdam, 1956.
  • In 1956, Thomas Beecham and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra gave the premiere of Salzedo’s Symphony No.1 (1952) at the Royal Festival Hall.
  • Appointed to musical directorship of the Rambert Company (1966-72), the Scottish Ballet (1972-74) and the London City Ballet (1982-6)
  • In 1986, Salzedo devoted his time to composition. Important works include the Requiem without Voices for orchestra, a Stabat Mater (1991), the Violin Concerto (1992) and a Piano Concerto (1994)
  • Retired from composition due to ill health in 1997.
  • Died in Leighton Buzzard on 6 May 2000.
Five Key Works: 
As noted above, Salzedo suffers from a lack of recorded material, so any assessment of his music by listeners is based on the very small number of works that are/have been available on CD or vinyl. The backbone of Salzedo’s opus are the 17 ballet scores, the 10 string quartets and the two symphonies. The list below is a fair cross section of the composer’s achievement presented in chronological order. All are available on YouTube. 
1. Symphony No.2 (1954)
2. The Witch Boy Ballet Suite (1955)
3. Rendezvous for Jazz Group and Orchestra (with David Lindup) (1960)
4. Capriccio for brass quartet (1977)
5. String Qartet No.10, op.140 (1997)

With more than 140 works with opus numbers and some 47 works without, including film scores, there is plenty of potential for professional recordings and concert performances. This would seem to demand a conspectus of the two symphonies and the concerted works.  An essential project must be the completion of the cycle of String Quartets: Nos. 1, 2, 5, 7 and 10 have already been released. It is a desideratum that a few of the ballet scores are recorded. Certainly, a new edition of The Witch Boy would be worthwhile. The early The Fugitive and the Divertimento Espagñol would make ideal companion pieces. Finally, a new or remastered edition of Rendezvous for Jazz Group and Orchestra (with David Lindup) would introduce Leonard Salzedo’s music to a wide range of listeners.

There is no formal biography of Leonard Salzedo. However, one major source of material is Paul Conway’s long essay on the composer published on MusicWeb International. Other details must be gleaned from Grove’s Dictionary, obituaries, reviews and record sleeves. Salzedo does not yet have an entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. The ‘Salzedo’ webpage is located at the Impulse Music Consultants website. This includes a concise biography of the composer, his catalogue of works, details of publishers and an incomplete list of recordings. There is also information about ‘recent’ concert performances. Links to the Salzedo Society’s Facebook, Instagram and Twitter accounts are included. This is a good place for browsing.

If you can only listen to one CD featuring Leonard Salzedo’s music:
As noted, there are few CDs devoted to Salzedo’s music. I guess that the enthusiast should opt for the recent disc of String Quartets on MPR104, performed by The Archaeus Quartet. These three works present a cross section of the composer’s music from the ear
ly String Quartet no.1 in one movement op.1 written in 1942 to the late String Quartet no.10 op.140, composed three years before his death. The other Quartet, no,5, on this CD dates from 1950/52 but was revised in 1995. The album makes a good introduction to Leonard Salzedo’s musical aesthetic.

On the other hand, the ballet The Witch Boy can be heard on YouTube (accessed 30 December 2020) in a version by the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by the composer. It was released on the Classics for Pleasure label (EMI CFP179) in 1970 and is coupled with Jacques Ibert’s ever popular Divertissement. Despite the technical limitations of this LP, the playing is brilliant. If ever a piece needs to be rediscovered in the concert hall and the recording studio it is this one.

Monday 15 February 2021

York Bowen’s Piano Music on Hyperion

York Bowen’s music is immediately approachable and does not seriously challenge the listener. But this approachability is the problem. York Bowen never really changed his compositional style from his earliest works to his last. He did not join, or father, a ‘school.’: he was not an experimentalist, a serialist or a modernist. His music is fundamentally romantic. And that, alas, was enough to consign him to oblivion long before his death. Fortunately, this obscurity has been challenged. 

The re-evaluation of York Bowen’s piano music has developed considerably over the past 25 years. I recall being amazed and impressed by Stephen Hough’s conspectus released on the Hyperion label back in 1996 (CDA66838). This included several of the magisterial 24 Preludes, op.102, the Piano Sonata No.5 in F minor, op72 and the ebullient ‘Moto perpetuo’ from the Suite Mignonne, op.39. It certainly left me wanting much more.  Seven years elapsed until Joop Celis began his extensive survey for Chandos (CHAN 10774). This six-year project resulted in four CDs covering a wide range of Bowen’s piano music. In 2007 a major two-CD exploration of this repertoire was issued by Mark Tanner on the Priory label (PRCD 887). Lyrita re-released York Bowen’s 1958 recital on CD in 2008 (REAM 2105). The following year, a remarkable 2-disc set was published by Danny Driver (Hyperion CDA67751/2). This featured the complete Piano Sonatas. In the meantime, the Piano Concertos were recorded by Hyperion (nos.3 and 4) and Dutton (nos.1, 2, and 3) (Regular new British classical releases from Dutton Epoch seems to be a thing of the past). There are other recordings of York Bowen’s piano music available including works for two pianos.

The last ten years have been less fruitful for York Bowen’s piano music. One highlight was Cristina Ortiz’s disc of the 24 Preludes op.102 on the Grand Piano label (GP637). So, this present CD comes as a delightful 2021 New Year’s gift.

As a child, my ‘bedside books’ were the Fairy Tales by the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen. Nearly 60 years on, they still are, albeit now on my Kindle. To these two charming volumes have been added the 12 ‘Colour’ Books by fellow Scot, Andrew Lang. Many years ago, I found an old Associated Board Syllabus for Grade 7. It included the first of York Bowen’s Fragments from Hans Andersen, ‘The Snowdrop, or summer geck.’ I could not play it properly but was able to get the general drift. It is a truly lovely little invention full of optimism and romance. The climax is sheer perfection. For the curious, a ‘geck’ is a Low German word for a ‘fool’. And the story relates how a snowdrop was lured out by a sunbeam at the wrong time of the year. It is still able to bring a tear to my eye.

It was many years before I was able to examine the score of the complete Fragments, which is printed in three books.  The stories related are the above mentioned ‘Snowdrop’, ‘Thumbelina’, ‘The Metal Pig’, ‘The Golden Treasure’, ‘The Bird of Popular Song’, ‘The Marsh-King’s Daughter’, ‘The Windmill’, ‘The Hardy [Steadfast] Tin Soldier’, ‘A Leaf from the Sky’, and finally ‘A Picture from the Fortress [Castle Wall]’.

Each piece in the score is prefaced by a short text from the relevant story. Nevertheless, the impact is not narrative: they are not tone poems or programme music. They are mood pictures or perhaps even impressions resulting from the 36-year-old composer’s mature reflection on the Danish master’s immortal creations.  In this, York Bowen is entirely successful, with the Andersen allusions adding charm and delight to these exquisitely wrought pieces.

Most pianists will have come across ‘Studies’ and ‘Études’. These are designed to improve the technical and mechanical abilities of the pupil. Typically, a single ‘study’ engages one aspect of technique: arpeggios, octaves, trills etc. And usually there is little musical or emotional interest in these pedantic pieces. The major exceptions here prove the rule. No one would argue that Chopin’s or Liszt’s Études were dull or arcane. Those by Moscheles, Czerny and Cramer are equally musical in their effect. On the other hand, I have never been able to gain much pleasure from those by Debussy, otherwise one of my favourite composers for the piano.

At first glance, York Bowen’s 12 Studies for piano, op.46 (1919) would appear to come under the heading of ‘pedagogical’. The titles list the desired technical result – ‘Light Staccato Chords’, ‘For Finger Staccato’, ‘For Brilliancy in Passagework’ and so forth.  This seems rather dull. But this is not the full story. Throughout these Studies, there are moments of passion, delight and romance: they are constantly full of ingenuity, technical wizardry and imagination. We have echoes of Mendelssohn, Schubert and Debussian impressionism in these pages. Bowen did play extracts from this collection in his concerts, and as such they appear more as ‘Concert Studies’ in the manner of Henselt and Liszt. I think that these Studies could, and probably should, be heard as a cycle, although clearly, they can be excerpted or played in small groups. My favourite is No.4 ‘For Forearm Rotation…’

Equally impressive are the Two Concert Studies. No.1 was published in 1917 but appears to have been composed some years earlier. The second was probably written around 1910.  Both works are capricious, happy go lucky and display ‘no-holds-barred’ virtuosity. Kevin Mandry in his review of this disc for the British Music Society has noted wisely that these Studies are ‘Backward-looking and overtly Romantic in their idiom, there is nothing of the ‘English Musical Renaissance’ – or indeed most other 20th century musical movements…’ He adduces that this may the reason that Bowen has ‘fallen between the cracks in the repertoire.’ That, said, I just fell in love with these two brilliant Concert Studies which are devoid of pedantry. They surely deserve a place in the recital room.

The booklet is superb. The front cover reproduces the evocative Piccadilly Circus by George Hyde Pownall (1876-1932), painted before the Great War and featuring the rapidly burgeoning motor car. The notes, by Francis Pott, include a critical biography of the composer, as well as a contextualisation of his music within the 20th century. Detailed descriptive notes are given for each work and subdivision. They reward reading before listening. All this is the more remarkable as there are precious few sources of biographical and analytical information available for the life and work of York Bowen. The honourable exception is Monica Watson’s York Bowen: A Centenary Tribute (London, Thames, 1984). The York Bowen webpage which once showed so much promise wilted around 2010, although it is still available online. Nicolas Namoradze’s ‘CV’ is included. The booklet is printed in English, French and German. There are a couple of photos of York Bowen and one of the present soloist.

This is a most welcome new CD. It captures four works that do not appear to have been recorded in full elsewhere. The playing throughout is masterful. I can only hope that Nicolas Namoradze and Hyperion have plans to issue more of York Bowen’s remarkable piano music. Looking at the catalogues, there are certainly many more pieces that would seem to demand reviving.

Track Listing:
York BOWEN (1884-1961)
Fragments from Hans Andersen (1920/21), op. 58 Part I and II, op.61 Part III
Concert Study for piano No.1 in G flat major, op.9, no.2 (pub.1917)
Concert Study for piano No.2 in F major, op.32 (1920)
12 Studies for piano, op.46 (1919)
Nicolas Namoradze (piano)
rec. Concert Hall, Wyastone Estate, Monmouth, 13-15 July 2019
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

Friday 12 February 2021

It’s not British, but…Charles Marie Widor’s 'Marche Nuptiale' for organ.

For every hundred newly married couples that requested Widor’s ‘Toccata’ from the local parish church organist, I wonder how many had considered his ‘Marche Nupitale’. I concede that it does not have the virtuosity of the well-known war horse but is it an impressive piece that may be playable on a smaller instrument unsuited to the ‘big one.’ It is also great recessional piece that can be played irrespective of occasion. 

The ‘Marche Nupitale’ has quite a complex history. It began in 1885 when Widor produced the incidental music for the play Conte d’avril by the French dramatist and poet Auguste-Léon Dorchain (1857-1930). This was a comedy in four acts based on William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. The play was premiered on 22 September 1885 at the Odéon Théâtre, 2 rue Corneille, 6th arrondissement of Paris. In 1890, Widor extended the score considerably, and this was used in a large-scale revival of the play on 12 March 1891. It was a highly successful production. The score contained 18 pieces, including an ‘Overture’, three entr’actes and the present ‘Marche Nupitale’. The ‘Marche’ was a reworking of the third piece in the second edition of Six Duos, op.3 published c.1889 for piano and harmonium. The conductor Édouard Colonne extracted two ‘books’ or suites, for orchestra, op.64, designed for the concert hall. The first ‘Livre I’ included: ‘Ouverture’, ‘Sérénade illyrienne’, ‘Adagio’ and a ‘Presto’. The second, ‘Livre II’ featured: ‘Guitare’, ‘Appassionato’, ‘Romance’ and the ‘Marche nuptiale’.  Widor wrote in his memoirs that ‘the entire score received a performance at the Châtelet concerts on November 15, 1891, under the direction of Colonne.’ (Near, 2011, p.207). Conte d’avril was also published in a version for two-pianos. To my knowledge, neither the incidental music, nor the suites have been recorded.  Near (2011, p. 485, n138) notes that Widor and Mlle Berthe Max performed the piano suite in London for the benefit of a relief fund for ill-fated foreign artists living in England. 10 June 1892.

Finally, Widor transcribed the ‘Marche nuptiale’ for organ in 1892[?]. It was published by H & C Heugel in the same year.

The score suggests that a three manual organ is required – Recit, Postif, Grand-Orgue et Pedales. This relates roughly to the British Swell, Choir and Great and Pedals respectively. The composer calls for 8' and 16' pedal reed stops to be prepared, which many smaller instruments will lack.

The ‘Marche’ begins quietly and slowly (andantino) in the solid key of F major with a relaxed exposition of the main march tune:

The second theme is introduced in the subdominant key of Bb major. This is also quite easy-going. Relatively unusually for the organ, use is made of ‘spread chord in the right hand:

The formal structure of the ‘Marche’ consists of these themes played in alteration but varying in figuration. The piece build up to a powerful conclusion, beginning with a reprise of the opening theme with massive chords in octaves. This is ‘Recessional music to vie with the best.’ (Ateş Orga, 2016):

Near, John R., Widor: A Life Beyond the Toccata. (Series: Eastman Studies in Music, v. 83. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2011)
Orga, Ateş, Liner Notes for Signum Classics, SIGCD348 (2016)

There are surprisingly few recordings of Widor’s ‘Marche nuptiale’ currently available. The first CD listed below was recorded on the famous Cavaillé-Coll of Saint-Sernin in Toulouse, On the Nolan disc, the Cavaillé-Coll of St François de Sales, Lyon was used.
  1. Widor, Charles-Marie, Complete Organ Works, Volume 7, Ben Van Oosten, MDG Gold 316 0519-2 (1998)
  2. Widor, Charles-Marie, Solo Organ Works, Joseph Nolan, Signum Classics, SIGCD348 (2017)
This last recording has been uploaded to YouTube.

Tuesday 9 February 2021

Elegy for Choir and Soloists from Danacord

The advertising blurb explains that the Danish composer and conductor Bo Holten has collected ‘a series of songs and musical pieces depicting the elegiac mood.’  These are presented by the Flemish Radio Choir with input from several soloists.  Again, the advert insists that ‘this is one of the most satisfying choral releases around.’ Possibly a touch of hyperbole, but I take the point. 

The disc opens with the first part of Bo Holten’s Nordisk Suite. The entire work appears to be a setting of four Nordic songs, with the first being a Finnish folk tune.  WorldCat shows that the other three songs are Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish. Strangely, Nordisk Suite, Part 2, which follows a few tracks later does not seem to belong to this set: it is another vocalise for a-cappella choir. Unfortunately, the liner notes tell us nothing about this Suite, so, it is all speculation.

Andre Previn’s Vocalise is new to me. Written for soprano, cello and piano it is a lovely haunting work that deserves to be heard alongside the better-known masterpiece by Sergei Rachmaninov. Talking of Rachmaninov, there are two versions of his moving and simply gorgeous Vocalise, op. 34 no.14. This was written in 1912 and was the last of a series of ‘Fourteen Songs’, or ‘Romances’. It has been arranged for just about every possible combination of voices and/or instruments. This version is adapted for soprano solo and a cappella choir. The ‘vocalisation’ is on the vowel sound ‘Ah’. Later in the programme the version for cello and piano is given a good account.

Gabriel Faure’s Elegie for cello and piano (1878) provides a subdued opening, a varied commentary on this, and is balanced by a tumultuous middle section. The restrained music brings the work to a satisfying conclusion.  It is well played here, establishing it as one of the finest examples of the genre.

I cannot warm to Vic Nees’s ‘Jardin des Olives’ (from Trois Complaintes) (2005). On the one hand there are some glorious moments as the music progresses, but on the other, there seems to be too much stylistic diversity crammed into four minutes of music.

Leoš Janáček’s Elegy on the Death of Daughter Olga for tenor solo, chorus, and piano, is a melancholic and somewhat depressing piece. Written in 1903, Janáček was clearly suffering from sadness and possibly depression. For not only had his daughter died (aged 21), but he had been a difficult marriage for many years with his former piano student, Zdeňka Schultzová. His son Vladmiir, had also died in childhood. The music celebrates the composer and his daughter’s love of Russian culture.

I have always enjoyed Edward Elgar’s ‘Go, Song of Mine’, op.57. This one of the composer’s most satisfying and testing part-songs. It was written in Careggi, Italy and sets a translation of an Italian poem, ‘A Dispute with Death’ made by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. It is beautiful, heartfelt music that does not require to be introduced by a ‘cello interlude.’ It is well sung here, but with a few problems with the high notes at the climax.

Herbert Howells’s ‘Take him, earth, for cherishing’ was written for the American Canadian Memorial Service for President John F Kennedy held in Washington D.C. the following year. It is a perfectly stated setting of a hymn by the Latin author Prudentius. One of Howells’s finest choral works.

Once again, no details are given for Bo Holten’s Romische Elegie, written in 2009. This is a setting of a poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. After the dirge like cello interlude and interpolations, this choral piece develops into a perfect evocation of the Eternal City.

The liner notes present the usual details of each composer and their music on this disc. The exception for some reason is Bo Holten. As noted above, there is nothing about his three pieces here. Brief bios of the performers are included. Although the texts for the relevant choral works have been provided, I guess that they have not been proof-read. Some are a wee bit out of order and one, the Janáček, presents the text in Czech, English, and, right at the end, Dutch. Finally, the CD cover lacks imagination and is simply boring: hardly the best ‘sunset’ picture imaginable.

The word ‘Elegy’ means ‘a poem of serious reflection, typically a lament for the dead.’ In classical literature it was simply a poem written in ‘elegiac couplets’ often covering a wide range of topics, including love, death, war and commemorative verses. I found it difficult to divine which definition of the word applied to this CD. I think a combination of both is the answer.  Finally, the inclusion of meaningless interludes for cello solo, here and there, during the programme seems totally pointless and a gimmick. Remove them, and this becomes a varied, imaginative, and interesting programme.

Track Listing:
Bo HOLTEN (b. 1948) Nordisk Suite, Part 1 (1989)
Eva Goudie-Falckenbach (soprano) Flemish Radio Choir/Bo Holten,
André PREVIN (1929-2019) Vocalise for soprano, cello and piano (1995)
Hilde Venken (soprano), Luc Tooten (cello), Stéphane De May (piano)
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943) Vocalise, op. 34 no.14 (1912)
Sarah Van Mol (soprano), Flemish Radio Choir/Bo Holten
Gabriel FAURÉ (1845-1924) Élégie op. 24 (1878)
Luc Tooten (cello), Stéphane De May (piano)
Bo HOLTEN Nordisk Suite, Part 2 (1989)
Flemish Radio Choir/Bo Holten
Vic NEES (1936-2013) Jardin des Olives (from Trois Complaintes) (2005)
Philippe Souvagie (baritone), Flemish Radio Choir/Bo Holten
Leoš JANÁČEK (1854-1928) Elegie na smrt dcery Olgy (Elegy on the Death of Daughter Olga) (1903)
Ivan Goossens (tenor), Flemish Radio Choir/Bo Holten
Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983) Take him, earth, for cherishing (1964)
Flemish Radio Choir/Bo Holten, Conductor
Sergei RACHMANINOV Vocalise, op. 34 no. 14 (1912)
Luc Tooten, (cello) Stéphane De May (piano
Edward ELGAR (1857-1934) Go, Song of Mine, op. 57 (1909)
Flemish Radio Choir/Bo Holten, Conductor
Bo HOLTEN Römische Elegie (2011)
Luc Tooten (cello), Flemish Radio Choir/Bo Holten, Conductor
Rec. 20-25 June 2010 Jesuits Church, Heverlee, Belgium

Saturday 6 February 2021

John Ansell: Overture – Plymouth Hoe (1914)

John Ansell is now largely forgotten. Yet, during the first half of the 20th century, he was highly regarded as composer of ‘light’ music. He wrote several overtures during his career. There was one for all occasions. Huntsmen were catered for by Tally Ho!, the Army with Private Ortheris, the Merchant Navy with The Windjammer and finally, the Royal Navy with Plymouth Hoe

A few words about the composer may be of interest. Born in Hoxton on 26 March 1874, Ansell studied at the Guildhall School of Music with the Scottish composer Hamish MacCunn. In the early part of his career, he played viola under the baton of Arthur Sullivan. He spent much of his career conducting theatre orchestras in London including the Playhouse (1907-13), the Alhambra (1913-20), the Adelphi (1920) and the Winter Gardens. Other posts included being on the staff of the BBC (1926-30) and occasional sessions conducting the Queen’s Hall Light Orchestra. A highlight was the brief appointment in 1930 as assistant conductor of the then new BBC Symphony Orchestra. John Ansell’s catalogue includes several operettas including The King’s Bride and Violette. They have all sunk without trace. Like Haydn Wood and Eric Coates, Ansell wrote several orchestral Suites with evocative titles: the Mediterranean Suite, the Suite Pastorale and the Three Irish Pictures. There are several piano pieces as well as reductions of his orchestral works.  A Serenade for cello and orchestra was featured during the 1898 Promenade Concerts (29 September). One relatively unknown fact about Ansell was that in his later years he devoted much of his time to hotel management as the landlord of the George and Dragon public house in Marlow. Fortunately, this institution is still going strong, lockdown notwithstanding. John Ansell died in Marlow, Buckinghamshire on 14 December 1948.

Philip Scowcroft (MusicWeb International) has quoted The Times obituarist (15 December 1948) which notes that Ansell's incidental music 'exhibits a soundness of construction and vein of fantasy which should ensure it the regard of discriminating audiences'.  Ansell’s music is typically in the ‘light’ genre, however there is no ‘suggestion of triviality.’

The Overture: Plymouth Hoe was composed in 1914, shortly after the outbreak of the First World War. It is not a ‘concert overture’ written in a variant of sonata form. The listener will hear a string of melodies designed to whet the audience’s appetite: it more like an overture to a Gilbert and Sullivan opera. Philip Scowcroft (MusicWeb International) has described the piece as ‘a potpourri of popular nautical melodies rather than a truly original work’. The Chandos CD liner notes suggest that the Overture was Ansell’s response to the war. On the other hand, it does not display ‘a tragic or lugubrious mood’ but one of ‘stiffening of sinew and positive resolve.’  

Plymouth Hoe is a cheery, upbeat work from the first note to the last. It opens with the hornpipe, ‘Jack’s the Lad’, and includes ‘The Saucy Arethusa’, echoes of HMS Pinafore and includes the inevitable ‘Rule Britannia’. Listeners will be surprised at the competency of Ansell’s orchestration and sensitivity towards these tunes.

I was unable to establish the date of the premiere. However, there are several references to the Overture in the musical press and daily newspapers. The reviewer of a Chappell Ballad Concert held at the Queen’s Hall reported that ‘At the concert given on March 3 [1917] an Overture: Plymouth Hoe, by John Ansell, showed that the composer knew how to deck out popular melodies.’

The Overture: Plymouth Hoe remained popular with military bands and orchestras for many years and was a favourite at Bournemouth with Dan Godfrey. It gradually faded from view. However, in the past few years it has made something of a comeback. Interestingly, the work was performed during the ‘Last Night of the Proms’ in 2014. The Overture has relatively recently been recorded on Sanctuary Classics (CD WHL 2137, 2003), Somm (SOMMCD243, 2009), and Chandos (CHAN10898, 2015) record labels. 

John Ansell’s Overture: Plymouth Hoe can be heard on YouTube in several versions. Perhaps the best example of the orchestral score is thar played by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, conducted by Rumon Gamba (CHAN10898).

Wednesday 3 February 2021

The Organ of St Bartholomew’s Orford: Catherine Ennis

Sadly, Catherine Ennis died on Christmas Eve, 2020. 

This recital gets off to a great start with J.S. Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor BWV 565. I guess that this is entry level for many organ enthusiasts. Whether first heard at church, cathedral or as part of Walt Disney’s iconic Fantasia film, featuring the work in an orchestral transcription starring Mickey Mouse and Leopold Stokowski, it is totally memorable.  Most aspiring organists will have had a go at this piece. I was able to play the Toccata (after a fashion) and about a third of the fugue. Fortunately, Catherine Ennis has got to grips with the entire work, which is given a rip-roaring performance. The liner notes remind us that the T&F is regarded by some musicologists as being spurious. Who cares? This warhorse retains its dignity and power. Apparently, Felix Mendelssohn wrote that he ‘let loose’ on this piece in 1830 at the start of the Bach Revival. Listeners will be glad that the work has survived the last 190 years. 

Nicolas de Grigny’s compositional reputation was made (and kept) with his Premiere livre d’orgue which was published in Paris (c.1699). It included a complete Mass, a Piece du premier ton and five ‘hymns’. It has remained one of the definitive collections of French Baroque organ music. Grigny’s music was known to Bach who copied out this album for his own study. The Hymnus: Veni Creator Spiritus is presented in five sections of versets which are designed to be played alternatively with singing of the plainchant. This is provided on this CD by the Gentlemen of Orford Church Choir. The organ part includes an ‘overture’, a fugue in five parts, a lively ‘Duo’ or ‘Gigue’, a highly ornamented ‘Recit de cromorne’ and concluding with a ‘Dialogue sur les Grand Jeux’.  The entire Hymnus is replete with complex counterpoint, intricate embellishments, and vivid textures. 

It was great to hear a splendid recital of Handel’s Organ Concerto No.12 in F. It is nicknamed ‘The Cuckoo and the Nightingale’ because of certain obvious musical conceits heard throughout the piece. Handel devised these Concerti to be used as ‘entr’actes’ played during performances of his oratorios. As if they were not long enough! Originally devised for organ and orchestra, this Concerto was arranged for solo organ by the French composer, Marcel Dupré.

Felix Mendelssohn’s Andante with Variations in D (c.1844) was originally intended for inclusion in one of his Sonatas for Organ. However, the composer rejected it for this purpose.  It is quite simply charming, with nothing to disturb the peace and tranquillity. 

The Prelude and Fugue in G minor by Johannes Brahms is new to me. It is an early work written when the composer was in his mid-twenties (1857). The liner notes explain that Brahms’s idea was to improve his ‘compositional technique.’ The impact of Bach and Buxtehude is clear. But what is special about this piece is the ‘rhapsodic writing’ which seems more appropriate to the piano than the organ.

I have always enjoyed Hubert Parry’s two sets of Six Chorale Preludes for organ.  It is no criticism to state that these were conceived in the style of J.S. Bach’s many examples.  The three contrasting items played here are based on the quiet, reflective hymn tunes ‘Martyrdom’, the powerful fantasia-like reimagining of ‘Hanover’ and the Oh so Anglican Evensong favourite, ‘Eventide.’ They are convincingly played here by Catherine Ennis 

Benjamin Britten published only a single work for organ: The Prelude and Fugue on a theme of Vittoria. It was written in 1946 for a recital at St Matthew's Church, Northampton and first performed there on 21 September 1946, their patronal day. It has never appealed to me: it is difficult to put my finger on why not. Timothy Bond writing in the Musical Times suggested that the work ‘moves through passages that are "serene", "creepy", "vigorous", "nostalgic”, and finally "serene", albeit with a "rather pedestrian" cadence.’ This is a good summing up.   It is given a fine performance here, which should encourage me to reappraise my thoughts about this work. Enthusiasts of Benjamin Britten will recall that his Three Church Parables and Noyes Fludde were given their first performance at St Bartholomew’s.

One of the treats on this album is American composers Dan Locklair’s ‘The peace may be exchanged.’ Presented as a ‘aria’ for organ, it features a solo stop supported by strings, creating a numinous and reflective mood. The work has street cred: it was heard at the funeral of President Ronald Reagan and the inauguration of President Barack Obama.

The recital concludes with another warhorse. Max Reger’s Toccata and Fugue in D op.59 might not be as well-known as the one that opened the recital. Reger, always one for exploring the ‘traditional’ abstract forms, wrote many Preludes, Fugues, Chorale Preludes and Variations for the organ. Reger is often dismissed as being boring and pedantic. On the other hand his music can be regarded as being in a trajectory from Bach, by way of Beethoven and Brahms and finally scooping up the chromatic harmonies of Wagner and Liszt and providing a consummation of German baroque, classical and romantic aesthetics.

The Toccata here nods towards the Bach (BWV 565), but the fugue is a masterpiece of ‘slow-burn’ music which builds up into a powerful climax featuring the Zimblestern (a toy stop, giving a tinkling sound). It is a great finish.

The three-manual organ in St. Bartholomew's Church, was built by Peter Collins and originally installed in the Turner Sims Hall in Southampton. It was relocated St Bartholomew’s Church, Orford where it was extensively restored by Cousans Organs Ltd and inaugurated on Easter Sunday 2019. This is the first commercial recording of this fine instrument.

The performance of this music is excellent, as is the sound quality. The liner notes by Graeme Kay are helpful. They include comments of each piece, a personal reflection on the church and the instrument (Catherine Ennis), a history of the organ (Paul Hale), as well as the all-important specification. Dates of some of the works (where known) are unfortunately omitted. There is a biographical note about the organist. No ‘total timing’ of the CD is given, but it is a healthy nearly 80 minutes!

This is a well-constructed programme, featuring music that is a step away from the pedestrian repertoire. Naturally, the Bach is ubiquitous, but the other pieces are well worth hearing.  I made a couple of discoveries here including the Brahms and the Locklair. The Reger was also a highlight. I certainly hope to hear further releases from Catherine Ennis (that may have been recorded before her sad death) and/or the organ at St Bartholomew’s Church Orford.

Track Listing
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750) Toccata and Fugue in D minor BWV 565 (?)
Nicolas de GRIGNY (1672-1703) Hymnus: Veni Creator Spiritus (c.1699)
George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759) Organ Concerto No.13 in F (1739) (arr. Marcel DUPRÉ (1886-1971)
Felix MENDELSSOHN-BARTHOLDY (1809-47) Andante with Variations in D (c.1844)
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-97) Prelude and Fugue in G minor (1857)
Charles Hubert Hastings PARRY (1848-1918) Chorale Preludes (Set 2) (1915): Martyrdom'; 'Hanover'; Eventide
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-76) Prelude and Fugue on a theme of Vittoria (1946)
Dan LOCKLAIR (b.1949) The peace may be exchanged (1988)
Max REGER (1873-1916) Toccata and Fugue in D op.59, Notebook 1, nos 5-6 (1901)
Catherine Ennis (organ)
Rec. 24-26 February 2020, St Bartholomew’s Orford
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.